The Palestinian Authority was established in 1994 as the main product of the Oslo Accords. Based on responsibilities outlined for it in the agreement, expectations from the new entity were very high. The P.A. was supposed to enable the Palestinians living in the territories Israel occupied in 1967 to enjoy self-rule in a democratically functioning regime that respected their human and civil rights. Additionally, the P.A. was also supposed to lead the Palestinians toward a permanent peace with Israel through diplomatic negotiations.
Today, these expectations read like something from a fairy tale. Yet they were foundational to hopes of peaceful progress for both Israelis and Palestinians, as well as for the United States, Europe, and other interested parties. Israel expected the Palestinian Authority to stop incitement to hatred and violence against it within Palestinian society and rid itself of the burden of ruling over Palestinians living in the territories the P.A. controlled. The international community, led by the United States, expected the P.A. to improve the living standards and economic situation of Palestinian inhabitants of the territories using very generous financial and economic assistance. The pragmatic Arab states expected the P.A. to create an environment that would enable them to normalize their relations with Israel and allow a cycle of peace and economic progress to take hold throughout the entire region.
Twenty-six years later, it is clear that the Palestinian Authority under Yasser Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas has not merely abjectly failed to deliver on any of these expectations. Worse, it has adopted policies that hurt the well-being of all the parties who placed their hopes for peace on it and counted on its ability to protect the most basic social, political and economic interests of the Palestinian people. In fact, the prospects that this P.A. will be able to improve the situation in the future are scant.
Abbas’ Palestinian Authority hurts the Palestinians themselves first and foremost. The Oslo Peace Process never envisioned Israel or some other outside power fulfilling the aspirations and expectations of the Palestinian people for freedom, a decent political system, and economic prosperity; by definition, they needed to be fulfilled from inside Palestinian society. The total failure to fulfill those expectations, therefore, begins with the P.A. itself, which has proved itself to be a deeply corrupt, incompetent, and undemocratic regime in the eyes of the people it purports to represent.
The Palestinian Authority has not held elections for more than 14 years; its elected parliament does not function. Instead, it governs by executive orders issued by a president who was elected back in 2005 and has declined to run for reelection since. It denies its Palestinian citizens basic human rights and freedoms, such as freedom of speech. It tortures prisoners.
Worst of all, the P.A. spends its resources on inculcating into the Palestinian consciousness and the Arab and international discourse a flawed, ahistorical narrative of victimhood that denies the existence of a Jewish people and its right for a state in its ancestral homeland; demonizes the Jews and the Zionists; justifies all forms of struggle against Israel, including terror; and preserves the Palestinian commitment to regain all of mandatory Palestine. It uses international aid to eternalize the conflict by paying handsome salaries to terrorists and their families (about 7% of the P.A.’s annual budget funds this “Pay-for-Slay” policy); operating a huge system of hate indoctrination against Israel through its propaganda and education apparatuses; issuing death penalties to Palestinians who sell real estate to Jews; and fighting against any normalization of relations between Israelis and Palestinians at the level of civil society.
While the Palestinian Authority blames all of its shortcomings and more on the Israeli occupation, the truth is that it misused the enormous foreign aid it received and is itself the main culprit for the failure to translate this aid to building a thriving and successful economy—which would only be helped by peace. Rawabi, the new Palestinian city built by a private Palestinian entrepreneur, stands like a symbol of what could have happened if the P.A.’s resources had been spent on constructive projects.
From a narrower Israeli standpoint, this Palestinian Authority hurts Israel. It has failed to perform its basic commitments as detailed in the Oslo Accords. It has never fought terror seriously. It has never arrested, interrogated, put on trial, sentenced, and imprisoned residents involved in terror attacks. Its security cooperation with Israel and occasional efforts to foil terror attempts by its political adversaries, which deserve some degree of appreciation, are motivated to a large extent by its own security needs and reflect political and cost-benefit calculations—not a real commitment and conviction that terror is wrong and belongs in the past. Spending more than $300 million a year on salaries to terrorists is a clear indication of what the P.A. thinks about terror. As stated above, it also prevents any possibility of developing a culture of peace, as the P.A. had committed to do in the Oslo Accords. It clearly views the ongoing struggle against Zionism as a higher value than making piece or caring for citizens’ well-being.
It is true that the existence of the Palestinian Authority lessens Israel’s responsibility for ruling Palestinian civilian life. Yet Israel still has to carry out daily incursions into the territory controlled by the P.A. to foil terror attempts or to arrest terrorists who find refuge there after carrying out attacks.
The Palestinian Authority’s poor performance and deep corruption also led to the Hamas takeover of the Gaza Strip, which has since turned into a source of large-scale rocket attacks (and, more recently, offensive terror tunnels, and incendiary kites and explosive balloon attacks) against Israel. The P.A.’s decision to stop delivering money to the Hamas authorities in Gaza in spite of the fact that a considerable part of the taxes collected by Israel are from merchandise that goes to Gaza, has exacerbated the situation in the strip and contributed to Hamas’ propensity to escalate its terror activities against Israel.
Under these conditions, it is clear that Israel cannot regard Abbas’ P.A. as a partner for peace.
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By preventing progress toward peace, the Palestinian Authority deliberately harms the ability of pragmatic Arab states, allied with the United States, to normalize relations with Israel, which can benefit them and the entire region both strategically and economically. While Palestinian society is gagged by the its internal security apparatus, the P.A.’s Arabic-language propaganda machine is busy continuously demonizing Israel and creating more hurdles on the road to normalization with the rest of the Arab world. The purpose of this propaganda is in part to extort money and other benefits from pragmatic Arab countries, including Saudi funding for the pilgrimage to Mecca of hundreds of families of Palestinian terrorists.
By perpetuating the conflict, the Palestinian Authority also forces international donor countries to indefinitely waste their taxpayers’ money on supporting terror and incitement against Israel, financing P.A. corruption, and eternalizing the Palestinian refugee problem. Moreover, it forces the international community to adopt its false narrative, such as ignoring the historical Jewish connection to Jerusalem in U.N. Security Council Resolution 2334 and in several UNESCO resolutions, mutating basic historical facts that are central not only to Jewish history but to Western history as a whole into historically illiterate gibberish.
The United States has tried hard in recent years to put an end to this unacceptable situation. It has cut economic aid to the Palestinian Authority due to its payment of salaries to terrorists, stopped financial support to UNRWA, and closed the PLO office in Washington. The United States also defied the P.A. narrative by recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moving its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, and by clarifying that Israeli settlements are not illegal. It is hard to overstate the importance of these moves, all of which came in response to the P.A.’s abject failures.
The Trump administration’s new peace plan signals clearly that this Palestinian Authority has to be replaced with a P.A. that first and foremost cares about the well-being of its citizens and respects their rights, fights corruption, and has well-functioning institutions. It has to be replaced by a P.A. that disarms Hamas and thereafter is able to govern the Gaza Strip. It has to be replaced with a P.A. that has a narrative of peace and is ready to accept Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people. It has to be replaced by a P.A. that fights terror, stops the “Pay-for-Slay” policy, and ends incitement and hate indoctrination at home and abroad. And ultimately, it has to be replaced by a P.A. that respects the outstanding readiness of the Arabs and the international community to support it and rises to their expectations. If this cultural change takes place, the new P.A. will turn into an independent state and will be provided with an abundance of new resources.
Unlike any previous peace plans, this new plan tells the Palestinian Authority that if it does not choose to change in the coming four years, the United States, Israel, and the pragmatic Arabs are not going to wait any longer and will not enable the P.A. to have veto power over their will to move forward for the good of Palestinians, Israelis, and the entire region. Time is ticking.
The P.A. has grown used to being spoiled by those it hurts. As Mahmoud Abbas revealed in his address to the Arab League foreign affairs ministers, previous American administrations spoiled the Palestinians so much that, in spite of the P.A.’a refusal to accept President Barack Obama’s peace plan after it was presented to Abbas in March 2014 (he replied that any Palestinian compromise is impossible), the Obama administration was still the driving force behind UNSCR 2334. This resolution defined all the territories as occupied Palestinian territory, including East Jerusalem with the Temple Mount and Wailing Wall, and declared Israeli settlements illegal. No more.
The U.S. peace plan marks a paradigm shift in the American approach to the Palestinian Authority. Will this P.A. change? Chances are slim, but only time will tell. One thing we know already—the paradigm that was adopted until now, which was largely based on willful blindness, did not yield the expected fruits. Let us hope that this new paradigm, which is based on the realities on the ground, will help heal the wounds that this P.A. has inflicted on its many victims—Palestinians, Israelis, moderate Arabs, and international donor countries whose money has been spent on murder and hate—and help us build a road to peace.
This article originally appeared in the Tablet Magazine on February 9, 2020.